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Courtesy of House of Anansi Press

Comics come of age

Canadian women are on the leading edge as graphic novels go mainstream

By Simon Lewsen

A few months ago, I came across a CBC Books online list about 12 essential graphic novels by Canadian women. It’s hard to imagine such a list existing 15 years ago. But brilliant female cartoonists have been around for as long as the genre itself, from Ethel Hays, whose images defined the jazz age, to Françoise Mouly, a maven of the underground comic scene who then became art director at The New Yorker. Today, however, female graphic novelists — many from north of the border — are establishing themselves not just as key players but as a dominant force. And thanks to the September release of Margaret Atwood’s Angel Catbird, Volume 1, it’s now impossible to deny that the genre has mainstream legitimacy.

On the CBC list, the range of topics is as broad as it gets. Jillian Tamaki’s SuperMutant Magic Academy explores familiar themes of teen heartache and angst. Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage features quirky Victorian mathematicians. And in Photobooth: A Biography, Meags Fitzgerald gives an international history of the photo booth. These books began their lives on the Internet. That shouldn’t be surprising. Graphic novels are one of the many genres that digital culture helped democratize.

I first discovered Kate Beaton’s comic strip Hark! A Vagrant long before it appeared in print. The comics would show up on my Facebook feed, and they were impossible to resist. Beaton’s new book, Step Aside, Pops, is the second to be adapted from the Hark! A Vagrant web series, and it’s even funnier than the first.

Beaton populates her comics with great historical figures, although, in her depictions, they come across as preening fops. The virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt is a narcissist who publishes a biography of his deceased friend Frédéric Chopin and puts himself on the cover. Georges Danton, hero of the French Revolution, is a tacky huckster who monetizes his persona by selling a breakfast cereal called Terror Flakes.

It might seem unfair that she makes romantic poet Lord Byron look ridiculous, except that Byron really was ridiculous: he walked his pet bear on a leash and commissioned a giant monument in honour of his dog.

There’s more to Beaton’s work than offbeat, revisionist history. She satirizes today’s celebrity culture, where the line between artistry and commerce — or politics and entertainment — is incredibly thin. There are jokes about contemporary gender politics, and Canadiana (Beaton is from Nova Scotia). And the target of the jokes isn’t always men. Beaton doesn’t have a single-minded political agenda. What she has is a sensibility — and it is, broadly, an irreverent, feminist one. Beaton looks back at the Great Men of history and laughs. She encourages the rest of us to laugh too.

A spread from Teva Harrison’s In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. Courtesy of House of Anansi Press
A spread from Teva Harrison’s In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer. Courtesy of House of Anansi Press

Margaret Atwood’s tragicomic graphic novel, Angel Catbird, Volume 1, deals with the cat overpopulation crisis — a topic that sounds like a joke until you realize it isn’t. The problem is simple: cats, domestic and feral, are killing birds, rodents and reptiles at a rate that might constitute an ecological catastrophe. Nearly 200 animal species have gone extinct because of cat predation. But what can we do?

That’s the question that animates Atwood’s story. The main character, Strig Feleedus, is a scientist who, through a freak accident, becomes part human, part cat and part raptor. His sympathies, unsurprisingly, are torn. The narrative follows Feleedus’s epic adventures in life and love, but it’s his encounters with birds that trouble him the most. Are they his family or his food?

You don’t have to think deeply about Angel Catbird to like it. Illustrator Johnnie Christmas, through his kinetic 1950s-tabloid aesthetic, invites you to tear through the book the way you would a Spiderman comic. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Atwood — a bird enthusiast and cat lover — is exploring her own cognitive dissonance. Can you be loyal to more than one species, particularly when these species are at odds with one another? What should you do when your moral impulses and your identity seem irreconcilable? The cat overpopulation crisis is both environmental issue and cultural quandary. Atwood, in her off-kilter way, helps us work through it.

Teva Harrison’s debut graphic novel, In-Between Days, is just as funny as Beaton’s and even more fraught than Atwood’s. A few years ago, Harrison, a Torontonian in her late 30s, was diagnosed with metastatic cancer, a condition that’s somewhere between terminal and chronic. People with metastatic cancer often live long, happy lives — the kind that Harrison plans to live. But, as she reveals both through her words and her sometimes-harrowing images, she faces a life of random pain flare-ups and intensive medication regimens.

In-Between Days is a game-changer for a few reasons. First, it’s not just about the hardships of sickness but also the subtle pleasures: the way illness can lead to greater clarity and focus. Harrison develops a heightened appreciation for her friends, her husband and the strange, complicated gift that is human existence. Second, she is attuned to the comic absurdities of her condition. There’s a vignette in which acquaintances compliment her on her weight loss. Her wry response: “Thanks, but I wouldn’t recommend the method.”

The best thing about In-Between Days: it resists closure. When you have a chronic illness, Harrison explains, the goal isn’t to overcome, but to live — and to do it well. “This disease will kill me eventually,” she writes, with characteristic bluntness, “but it could be years and years and years. And in the meantime — whatever that means — I really have nothing to lose.” In-Between Days is about finding happiness and a sense of freedom amid radical uncertainty.

Would it have been published in a pre-Internet era, though? Were comic-book editors — schooled, as they were, on superhero narratives and newspaper satire — looking for meandering, open-ended stories about being sick? Were they seeking out history nerds with a penchant for absurdist humour? In another time, would a literary star with a highbrow reputation to protect have steered clear of the genre altogether? Who’s to say. But today, the Internet gives top-tier graphic novelists a chance to show that there’s a market for offbeat, provocative and feminist comics. It turns out that people go in for that sort of thing. And we’re all the better for it.

Simon Lewsen is a journalist in Toronto.

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